Tag Archives: SF

Welcome to the Machine

The machine captured that old-world sense of irony in death: you can know how it’s going to happen, but you’ll still be surprised when it does.

Title: Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die
Editors: Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, David Malki
Year: 2010
Rating: 4/5 stars

I love an anthology with an interesting theme, and this one’s got it in spades. The concept came from a comic written by one of the editors in which a character makes a comment about what the world would be like if everyone knew how they were going to die. At that point the genie was out of the bottle, people were fascinated, ideas were kicked around, and the result is the volume before us now.

The concept is more than a general theme, however, since the editors set out the basic premise that each story is to follow. That premise, in a nutshell, is this:

The machine had been invented a few years ago: a machine that could tell, from just a sample of your blood, how you were going to die. It didn’t give you the date and it didn’t give you specifics. It just spit out a sliver of paper upon which were printed, in careful block letters, the words “DROWNED” or “CANCER” or “OLD AGE” or “CHOKED ON A HANDFUL OF POPCORN.” It let people know how they were going to die. [….] But the machine was frustratingly vague in its predictions: dark, and seemingly delighting in the ambiguities of language. “OLD AGE,” it had already turned out, could mean either dying of natural causes, or being shot by a bedridden man in a botched home invasion. [….] There were now machines in every doctor’s office and in booths at the mall. You could pay someone or you could probably get it done for free, but the result was the same no matter what machine you went to. They were, at least, consistent.

And every story is consistent in complying with the details of that description, including the block letters, the mall, and especially the machine’s twisted sense of linguistic ambiguity, which is a big part of what makes it such an intriguing premise in the first place. Included are thirty stories (chosen from over 600 submissions) from authors around the world, amateurs and pros alike, none of whom I was previously familiar with. Don’t let that put you off, though, because the writing quality is fairly high overall. Styles run the gamut, including adventure, humor, horror, fantasy, and sci-fi; but no matter what style each author uses, they all pay careful attention to how this invention would change our world, and its social, psychological, economic, and legal effects. Among some of the effects explored are: high school kids creating a new social hierarchy based on how “cool” one’s death is; hiring discrimination based on manner of death; the impact on the medical profession; the new world of dating and romance (who would you rather marry, an “OLD AGE” or a “PRISON KNIFE FIGHT”?); and the choices made by criminals (if you’re going out by “ELECTRIC CHAIR,” why not really earn it?).

This is a tight anthology; all the stories are true to the given theme and you don’t have to wonder why a story was included (as with some anthologies). I definitely give extra points for that. The downside of that tightness is that if you read this cover to cover, the stories all feel a bit too similar. So I’d recommend you space it out, read a bit here and there over time. There are no badly written stories here, and the creativity level is high. My only serious complaint is that there are so few stories that tackle the premise…. if I may put it this way…. from a sci-fi standpoint. There are a few nods to quantum mechanics and information theory, but by far most authors don’t attempt any explanation of HOW the machine works, but simply accept that it does. It would have been nice if the editors had included more stories taking a hard-edged science fiction angle; but I certainly enjoyed this exercise in “speculative fiction.”

You can pick up a copy of this 450-ish-page anthology for a pretty decent price. Or, for those of you comfortable reading your fiction from an electronic screen, you can actually download a free pdf of the entire thing. So come on, really, you have no excuse not to read this.


Natural history — or maybe not so natural

What if this entire planet were made of the same substance as Isol’s engine? What if the whole system was too? Suppose it wasn’t ordinary matter, but only looked like it at certain levels? Then a planet might talk, might think, might do as it wanted.
But what was the “it”?

Title: Natural History
Author: Justina Robson
Year: 2003
Rating: 3/5 stars

This book represents my first encounter with British sf writer Justina Robson, and my initial impression is that of a solid, if not necessarily spectacular, writer and novel. The action takes place several centuries in the future. Mankind has undergone a self-directed evolution, with the ability to design many different body types for almost any conceivable purpose. Genetic engineering and other advanced technologies have resulted in a new branch of humanity, the Forged. A Forged individual might have a body adapted to survive the pressure of the deep ocean, or with the ability to fly, or to travel through space without an external vehicle, or any of a multitude of possibilities. There are even Forged capable of terraforming other planets, turning the entire Solar System into humanity’s home. Of course the Forged represent only a portion of the species. The rest choose to change in less drastic ways (various levels of cybernetic enhancement), or not at all. These latter are known as the Unevolved or, as many of the Forged call them, Old Monkey.

That somewhat demeaning moniker should give you a clue about relations between the various types of humans; those relations are strained. The Forged have long been used almost as a slave labor force, and many resent their bondage to “Form and Function,” the idea that because their bodies were designed for a certain task then their lives must be constrained by that task. The entire novel takes place against the backdrop of an almost inevitable civil war, and raises pertinent questions about the political and social consequences when humanity begins to drastically alter itself in such a fashion, creating such differentiated versions of the species.

So that’s the background. The actual plot gets underway when Voyager Lonestar Isol, a Forged deep space explorer, comes across the first evidence of alien life. “Life” might not be accurate because, well, it’s no longer alive. But Isol also encounters a piece of alien technology that begins to change her, ultimately in more drastic ways than her human creators ever did. Nearby is a planet that appears to be the home of the apparently vanished architects of that technology, and Isol is strangely drawn to it; she dreams of using it as a new home for the Forged, for all those Forged who wish to break free from Old Monkey and start directing their own destiny. But that planet is not what it seems, and the technology Isol found is far more powerful and mind-boggling — and dangerous — than anyone could have imagined.

I really like some things about this novel. Robson does a fair job of examining issues of transformation and identity; how much are people willing to change their bodies, and what still counts as “human”? There are some very interesting scientific concepts woven into the story as well. Where I felt it was weak was in the overall level of immersion and believability. There was not enough attention given to world-building detail; this entire future society seemed like a mere sketch and thus was a little hard to fully buy into. The same is true of some of the characters; it was difficult to get inside their heads and understand their real motivations on any deep level. Or sometimes I knew a character’s motivation, but not why that motivation existed or where it came from. This is one case where I think a novel would have benefited from being a little bit longer and fleshed out a bit more (it’s 325 pages, actually not that long for contemporary sf). As it stands, though, I think the pros outweigh the cons enough to consider this a sufficiently rewarding reading experience.

A long time ago, in a courtroom far far away…..

Well, it’s done. The sci-fi legend of our generation is now complete. Our parents had Dr. Strangeglove and 1984. Their parents were transfixed by H. G. Wells. The generation before that had Jules Verne. And we got Star Wars….

Title: Star Wars on Trial: Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Debate the Most Popular Science Fiction Films of All Time
Editors: David Brin, Matthew Woodring Stover
Year: 2006
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Love it or hate it, most people would have to agree that the Star Wars saga is undoubtedly one of the greatest phenomena of modern pop culture. Of course, with popularity comes criticism, and Star Wars is no exception. Is it mythically rooted drama with something to say, or merely brainless eye candy? Is it science fiction or fantasy? Are the spinoff novels a good thing or an abomination? What about the politics, philosophy, and ethics of that galaxy far far away? These and many other questions have been discussed by fans and critics for years, and are discussed yet again in the present volume. Part of the Smart Pop book series from BenBella Books, Star Wars on Trial looks at this cinematic juggernaut from every possible angle (including a few unexpected ones). The book is laid out as a courtroom drama, with David Brin as the prosecutor, Matthew Woodring Stover as the defense, and a droid judge to maintain order. There are also essays or “briefs” submitted by many other SF/F authors on both sides of the debate (see the tags for a full list). This courtroom format comes across as silly sometimes (all right, most of the time), but the book does a good job of bringing a wide variety of opinions to bear on the subject.

The main topics for debate are presented as a series of charges, with each charge then being addressed by both prosecution and defense. The charges are as follows:

1. The politics of Star Wars are anti-democratic and elitist.
2. While claiming mythic significance, Star Wars portrays no admirable religious or ethical belies.
3. Star Wars novels are poor substitutes for real science fiction and are driving real sf off the shelves.
4. Science fiction filmmaking has been reduced by Star Wars to poorly written special effects exravaganzas.
5. Star Wars has dumbed down the perception of science fiction in the popular imagination.
6. Star Wars pretends to be science fiction, but is really fantasy.
7. Women in Star Wars are portrayed as fundamentally weak.
8. The plot holes and logical gaps in Star Wars make it ill-suited for an intelligent viewer.

If those accusations sound overly negative, let me put your mind at ease by saying this book is not merely an exercise in Star Wars bashing. Brin and his supporters do come on strong and put the screws to George Lucas and his creation (and rightly so, I think). But on the other hand, Stover and his defense team manage to hold their ground quite admirably. In fact, I would venture to say that most readers who begin reading this book with a preconceived bias, either for or against these movies, will likely come away with the feeling that things aren’t quite as simple or clear-cut as they thought. Many good points are made on both sides of the debate, some that I had never considered before. I, for one, now have a better view of both the flaws and the strengths of this film series (I think there are many of both), and for that reason it was well worth reading.

Advice to would-be sf writers, from sf writers

The sf writer cannot avoid man’s problems; by the very nature of his craft, he must meet them head on. That is sf’s challenge, and it is as big as the future of mankind.

Title: The Craft of Science Fiction: A Symposium on Writing Science Fiction and Science Fantasy
Editor: Reginald Bretnor
Year: 1976
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Here’s one of those “advice on how to write from the writers themselves” books, which I picked up not because I have any goals of writing myself but simply because I like reading what sf writers have to say about their field. This is one of several such volumes helmed by the same editor back in the 1970’s, and is a fairly interesting collection of essays for any sf fan who also likes reading works about sf. Strange fellow though, this Bretnor. His introduction provides some insightful thoughts on sf, but things get a little weird when he starts professing his belief that clairvoyance, dowsing, and other assorted woo is “proven.” Uhhh, yeah, whatever. Anyway, who cares what the editor has to say? What’s important is what the writers themselves have to share. Here’s a rundown of their contributions and a few comments on each:

Poul Anderson, “Star-flights and Fantasies: Sagas Still to Come.” This one’s rather dry, with not much of importance to say.

Hal Clement, “Hard Sciences and Tough Technologies.” A decent article on the use of science in sf and the importance of internal consistency.

Norman Spinrad, “Rubber Sciences.” One of the best essays in the book; it covers some of the same ground as Clement, but from a different perspective. Spinrad says what’s important in sf is plausibility, and not necessarily a rigid deference to scientific fact. He sums up by saying science fiction writers are….

… the poets of the future, the seers of human destiny. Hard science, soft science, or rubber are tools of the trade, means to the end of visionary insight and artistic creation. They should never be mistaken for the end itself.

Alan E. Nourse, “Extrapolations and Quantum Jumps.” Focuses largely on that all-important fictional element, the premise, as well as other fiction basics. Solid article.

Theodore Sturgeon, “Future Writers in a Future World.” This was a pure joy to read. Sturgeon does a better job than anyone else in this volume of getting across the sheer sense of wonder of science fiction, and his essay is full of enthusiastic inspiration for future writers and valuable advice on where to find story ideas. He also stresses the importance of connecting your ideas to real human concerns:

And whatever your idea or statement, gimmick, gadget or message, you will (to be read) encase it in love, and pain, and greed, and laughter, and hope, and above all loneliness.

Jerry Pournelle, “The Construction of Believable Societies.” A good look at the need for social depth — what we often call “world building” — in sf.

Frank Herbert, “Men on Other Planets.” Herbert makes some great points about sf’s ability to escape our society’s unexamined assumptions and play around with them. He also quite correctly warns the potential writer that there’s more to writing sf than thinking up an idea — the development of that idea is the crucial thing.

Katherine MacLean, “Alien Minds and Nonhuman Intelligences.” MacLean chose an intriguing topic, but her thoughts on the matter were scattered and unfocused and, to be honest, boring.

James Gunn, “Heroes, Heroines, Villains: the Characters in Science Fiction.” Pretty self-explanatory. Solid article on the importance of characterization.

Larry Niven, “The Words in Science Fiction.” On how to add some linguistic depth to your fiction. Interesting.

Jack Williamson, “Short Stories and Novelettes.” A few words on the particular strengths and weaknesses of the shorter fictional forms.

John Brunner, “The Science Fiction Novel.” And here’s Brunner on the other end of the spectrum.

Harlan Ellison, “With the Eyes of a Demon: Seeing the Fantastic as a Video Image.” A long and involved article on writing screenplays for television and film. I didn’t find it that interesting myself, but I’m sure it would be helpful to anyone looking to do that kind of work.

Frederik Pohl, “The Science Fiction Professional.” A rather tedious essay on the business aspects of being a writer — all about agents, publicity, contracts, and such.

Basically it’s a few boring articles, mixed with a few really pleasurable ones, with a lot more falling somewhere in between. I’d recommend this book to would-be writers; for anyone else, it just depends on how much interest you have in this sort of thing.

A Hidden Place deserves to be read, not hidden

“Maybe it’s true,” he said slowly, “what Aunt Liza believes about Anna. She’s not human. For the first time he looked at her. “You understand that?”

Title: A Hidden Place
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Year: 1986
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

For my latest excursion into the works of one of my favorite authors, I went all the way to the beginning to take a look at Wilson’s very first novel, A Hidden Place. And what did I find? Well, a fine book, which was no surprise. Although this one largely lacks the boldness of premise that Wilson exhibits in his later novels, this is nevertheless a solid and satisfying piece of work. And although Wilson only gets stronger over time, his characteristic strengths are all evident here at the start of his career: the convincing depth of his characters, the vibrancy and genuineness of his settings, and his keen insights into life and human experience.

In the 1930’s, young Travis is taken in by his aunt and uncle after his mother’s death; and given her scandalous lifestyle (she was a “working girl”), he finds himself an outcast in a small prudish town of conventional folks. He soon connects with Nancy, a girl his own age who is also an outcast, a starry-eyed dreamer who longs to escape the confining limits of dreary small town life. And these two soon find their lives entwined with that of yet a third sort of outcast, for Travis’ aunt and uncle have a boarder living in their attic, an indescribably strange girl named Anna who has very bizarre effects on people. Travis is drawn to her for reasons he can’t understand. There are secret midnight meetings between her and Uncle Creath. And there are hushed rumors about her all over town. No one seems to know who — or even what — she really is.

Interspersed with these events are scenes of a traveling Hobo named Bone, a peculiar giant riding rail cars around the country and struggling to survive. Bone is also something of a mystery to those around him, and some try to take advantage of his apparent simple-mindedness. Bone feels a constant tug pulling him to some faraway place. He doesn’t know what it means, but as it gets stronger and stronger, he has no choice but to follow it wherever it leads — which happens to be a certain small town already mentioned.

This is an attractive novel because of its many different facets: the mysterious nature of Anna and Bone (which I won’t spoil for you); the anxiety and quiet desperation of Depression-era America; the social intrigues of an insular small town; the difficulties faced by those who don’t fit into the prevalent social order; and the tendency to see in others what we want to see, in effect making other people a mirror of our own deepest needs or expectations. Wilson handles all these with skill, and braids them together into a whole that resonates with the reader.

And speaking of resonating, one of the things I love about Wilson’s writing is the way he slips in little bits of insight and truth about life. I think I say that in every Wilson review I do, but how could anyone fail to identify with a passage like this:

[…] he felt, too keenly, the narrowing of life itself. You start out, Creath thought, you are a river in full flood; but life meets you with its dams and deadfalls and all its interminable and arid places. You lose speed, depth, urgency, desire. You become a trickle in a desert.

So yeah….. get the book, read the book, enjoy the book. You just cannot go wrong with Robert Charles Wilson.

Let there be indexing

I’ve just finished creating an index of all my full-length reviews (see tab at the top). Been meaning to do it forever, but somehow my good intentions usually end up losing in the never-ending battle with procrastination. Anyway, it’s done now and I hope it’s helpful.

The Wilding — a “so what?” sequel

For a moment it seemed like she hesitated. “There is a way,” she whispered at last. “A Braxaná custom you can invoke. I researched it. It’s called the Wilding. Do you know it?”

Title: The Wilding
Author: C.S. Friedman
Year: 2003
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars

Have you ever read a sequel and then asked yourself, simply, “why?” Indeed, that is the question here. Why did Friedman, seventeen years after writing the quite solid In Conquest Born, choose to follow it up with a piece of work that seems so weak compared to the original? Was it pressure from fans to write again in the same universe? Did she feel there was unfinished business to attend to? It doesn’t seem to me that there were any loose ends left at the end of the first novel. Was this simply an attempt to recapture past glory, or a nostalgic effort to revive a cherished accomplishment? Whatever the case, I’m sorry to say I didn’t care much for The Wilding. I know Friedman can write better than this, so it’s a shame she spent some portion of her energy on such an unnecessary and disappointing sequel.

I won’t delve into the details all that much. The story takes place a couple hundred years after the events of the first book. The Braxins and Azeans are still engaged in their perpetual war. Both societies have undergone some changes, but the basic situation is still the same. Except that the remaining telepaths have scattered to parts unknown and are now distrusted by everyone. One piece of the plot involves an Azean’s quest to find the hidden psychic community in search of a long-lost sister. Another piece involves a Braxin’s mission (the “Wilding” of the title) to find new genes to refresh the dwindling Braxaná genetic pool, and to avoid execution at the hands of his enemies. These two characters meet up and find their quests are leading them to the same place. Of course there are numerous other characters in the mix. There is much traveling, scheming, fighting, death, and general adventure. The end.

OK, I’m making it sound terrible, and it’s not, really. It’s just that I didn’t feel any of the spark I got from the earlier book. Nothing about this story made me feel it really needed to be told, and nothing about the way it was told really compelled my attention. The characters were less vibrant, the plot was clumsier, and the entire style was less stimulating. So to anyone out there who has read and enjoyed In Conquest Born, I’d advise against expecting the same quality level from this follow-up. As sequels go, I have to say I’ve read better ones.